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March 6, 2012

An affecting journey to the soul of 'Winterreise' from Goerne, Eschenbach

If you are very, very lucky, you get to hear a performance every now and then that is so sublime in execution, so profound in expressive realization that it will have a place with you for the rest of your life.

I felt I had one of those  experiences Monday night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, since I just can't imagine ever forgetting what happened when baritone Matthias Goerne sang Schubert's "Winterreise," partnered by Christoph Eschenbach at the piano.

It represented for me an interpretive benchmark that I don't expect will be surpassed anytime soon.

One can go a few years without easily encountering "Winterreise" in concert. By a coincidence of scheduling, I heard it twice in eight days.

The first recital featured Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and pianist Russell Ryan in a Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation. The second was offered as part of the Kennedy Center's current festival, The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.

Luckily, I've always felt a person can never be depressed enough. So I did not hesitate to take in two proximate doses of these 24 songs about a desolate man, unlucky at love and convinced that nothing but loneliness and wretched wandering awaits -- unless he succumbs to suicidal thoughts first.

But just as you can look at the icy painting "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich and feel both somber and strangely uplifted, "Winterreise" can exert something like exhilaration. That is certainly how things turned out on Monday.

The music had ...

 an electric current from the first sounds of the dark, steady rhythm set by the piano in "Gute Nacht." Eschenbach, in the space of a couple measures, managed to create great tension and a remarkable palette of coloring. Goerne's entrance generated another little jolt from the warmth and intimacy of the tone, the compelling way phrases were shaped and shaded.

In just the opening moments of that first song, it was evident what an uncanny rapport the two artists had, how perfectly in sync every breath, every nuance. This continued for the next 75 minutes, so that you felt you were on very personal terms with both men, not to mention Schubert and poet Wilhelm Muller, when it was over.

The baritone produced a downright startling prism of tonal coloring along the way, often within a single, long-breathed phrase. There was a compelling darkness in the voice for the cycle's most angst-driven passages; a disarming lightness when the mood softened (as in "Irrlicht," "Fruhlingstraum," and the gentle melodic leap at the end of "Tauschung"); and any number of gradations in between.

If you didn't know what the texts were, you would still sense the meaning from how deftly articulated -- how fully lived -- each word emerged.

Eschenbach created his own compelling poetry, bringing out the richness and depth of Schubert's keyboard writing. The pianist inflected tempos with exquisite little fluctuations that spoke volumes, and his touch invariably matched the imagery of the verses. 

I suppose both musicians allowed a trace of human fallibility during the recital. I vaguely recall that the singer encountered strain in the upper register once, maybe twice. And I seem to think that one of Eschenbach's notes, at the start of "Rast," landed shy of its target.

All I really remember, though, all I care about, is that two artists with impeccable taste and uncommon insight gave a mesmerizing performance of "Winterreise." I felt privileged to witness it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:18 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes


As someone who was present for both presentations of Winterreise - Goerne's and Holzmair's - I found much to admire in both, but I enjoyed Holzmair's more. I agreed with Anne Midgette about Eschenbach's disappointments and Goerne's " the edge of bellowing...". Also, I didn't find the Terrace Theater to be that much more conducive to quietly following the text in the programs. I felt that the difference was more in the booklet versus sheets of paper. If I were to buy just one singer's CD of Winterreise it would be Holzmair's.

Having recently interviewed Holzmair and reviewed his Winterreise in Berkeley (when the worst of the cold that plagued him in Baltimore had lifted), I want to alert Danbs that Holzmair's recording of Winterreise, now available on demand from ArkivMusic, ends differently than the performance you heard. Holzmair's earlier Winterreises were all bleak; now, there is an indication of hope, or at least a lack of resolution (as I heard it in Berkeley), in the last song.

Goerne's interpretation, as well, changes from accompanist to accompanist. Which is not to say that he is anything less than a magnificent artist. I can't wait to hear him again in San Francisco in April, when he performs Shostakovich and Mahler to the accompaniment of Leif Ove Andsnes.

I also want to thank Tim for these wonderfully detailed blogs. After I learned of Holzmair's cold, I referred to and quoted Tim's write-up because it so clearly recounted how it had affected the performance you heard.

I came across these Winterreise reviews and comments from the UK, when I was googling in search of information about Holzmairā€™s second recording of Winterreise. He made this with Andreas Haefliger, in 2009, shortly after I heard them perform the cycle in the Wigmore Hall. I have no idea when it will appear, or where, or whether it will reflect his current approach; however if it resembles the Wigmore recital, it will be very different from the version available from Arkiv!

I found Goerne and Eschenbach's performance deeply moving. Thanks for your review.

Nice to know I wasn't the only one. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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